Garden Notes: Moving through the fall

Here is a good excuse to read all the seed catalogues.


October has been glorious. A wistful feeling pervades as we bid it adieu and look ahead to Eastern Standard Time, and late fall’s darker and rainier days. It is good to remember that dark and rainy days across New England and the Northern Hemisphere possess a function. Root growth takes place, unseen below the surface, while rainfall fills swamps and plumps water tables, enhancing those roots’ search for life-giving moisture.

If plantings are to be installed, the window of increased rainfall plus cooler temperatures, which September through November usually brings, increases the chances of successful establishment.

Off-season learning

For vegetable gardeners especially, seed catalogues from reputable seed sources are often funds of advice and tips. For instance, you can buy a packet of seed at the supermarket checkout, but will it inform you that curing your squash, onions, potatoes, or garlic after harvest will enhance and prolong storage?

The library and secondhand booksellers are gardeners’ resources. John Dewey’s Learning by Doing — experiential learning — in gardening is an incomparable mode. However, when I need answers to particular questions, I prefer to rely upon traditional print resources that have had at least a minimum of horticultural vetting.

While there is much, not everything is to be found on YouTube, Instagram, and Pinterest! As Matt Mattis of Growing with Plants (paradoxically, blog plus Instagram site says, lots of information and facts you find on the Internet are often people’s individual opinions and views, based on inaccurate information, repeated from poor-quality sources, lacking vetting authority, and based on who is selling what.

Mattis is a gardener I am eager to read for his compulsive attention to detail and excellent photography. He points out that the early 20th century robber baron era saw the rise in estate growing and gardening: hothouses, cold frames, and conservatories, overseen by teams of knowledgeable professionals and trainees. We benefit by referring to all that know-how.

Mattis finds that delving into his collection of vintage gardening catalogues, books, and manuals often supplies uniquely reliable advice for his projects, which by modern gardening standards are sometimes quite esoteric: Auriculas, South African bulbs, Meconopsis, Mimulus, and more. And then sometimes, he recounts following advice that did not pan out: learning by doing.

Planting for fall color

Unlike spring, when attention turns to flowering trees and shrubs, in autumn interest peaks in choices of trees and shrubs that supply beautiful fall foliage.

However, if flowery fall shrubs are your desire, the sasanqua camellias are increasingly available in garden centers; look for them. Not only are they autumn-flowering in a wide color range, but many are also fragrant.

We are fortunate to have swathes of huckleberry, beetlebung, swamp maple, sassafras, highbush blueberry, sumac, and yes, poison ivy, adding color blasts to the wider Vineyard landscape; however, in home gardens, they may not work out.

Beetlebung and swamp maple generally prefer damp soils; and swamp maple (Acer rubrum), like all maples, does not coexist happily with lawn, due to the shallow root systems of this family. (The others may have been eradicated for development.)

Conversely, huckleberry, highbush blueberry, and sumac are generally found on poor soils, an abundance of which the Vineyard has, but not necessarily in your domestic landscape or garden.

Some good landscape trees for striking red color are sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) and oxydendrum (Oxydendrum arboreum). For golden color, consider birches, hickories, tulip poplar (Lirodendron tulipifera), and ginkgo. 

Good shrubs or small trees include Stewartia pseudocamellia, crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia), native witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), and fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus): The latter two both clear yellow. Disanthus and Cercis, two separate genera with similar-looking leaves, are small trees with exquisite fall color, as are spice bushes, Lindera glauca var. salicifolia and L. obtusifolia. Amelanchier species (shadbush) are always good choices.

Most of the above are performing their autumn show at Polly Hill Arboretum. Visit now to investigate.

Leaf harvest

Leaf harvest is the one thing every gardener can do, regardless of budget or skills. Make wire surrounds measuring four to five feet tall and across. Dump all your fallen leaves (and nothing else, i.e., branches, twigs or garden waste) into the containers, and let them break down. The result is leaf mold, the soil enhancer for every Island soil type.

I often refer to Martha’s Vineyard as a sandpile out in the ocean (not to be confused with Nantucket, a sandspit out in the ocean). Island soils are impoverished, gravelly, and acidic. Wherever we farm or garden, we are dealing with the rhizosphere, the impossibly thin layer teeming with organisms that makes all life on earth possible.

Everything of organic origin we can add to soils enhances their life forms and ability to hold moisture; grow food, a garden, or a woodland; support wildlife; and keep it from eroding away. Read at for an update on crucial tech developments in supporting soils’ biome. 

In the garden

Deer tick adults are active; check yourself and pets. Frost conditions are variable around the Island; although woodlands are still leafy, nighttime temperatures are falling, in the low 40s already. Label dahlias before frost.

Be prepared to bring container plants indoors. Check them, and spray susceptible ones, such as fuchsia, citrus, and cyclamen, with insecticidal soaps and/or horticultural oil to control black vine weevils, scales, whitefly, and mealybugs.

Yellow jackets and hornets are still about, although in swan-song phase. These insects scavenge every last bit of sugar from orchard drops such as pear, quince, and apple. They may seem to menace when we harvest fruit, but if respected are harmless.

Cool weather encourages sprouting of lamb’s lettuce, arugula, cilantro, dill, and calendula, or other welcome reseeders, in vegetable gardens. If bolted lettuce is permitted to stand, there may now be lettuce seedlings; also chickweed and others not so welcome.